The Secret Of Depression
When my husband asked me to keep his secret, I didn’t hesitate. It never occurred to me, in fact, not to keep his secret. We had been married for nine years and that’s what partners do.
The hush developed as gradually as his illness did. For a few months, his energy level had been declining. He had stopped responding to friends’ phone calls. He always had a reason not to go out for movies, walks with me, or dinners with his parents.
It finally came out one random Tuesday morning. As he sat at the breakfast table nursing a cup of lukewarm coffee, he said very quietly, “I think I’m depressed.”
“I think you are too,” I replied.
For the next half-hour, I held him in dismay as he wept. I assured him that we would get help. “O.K.,” he said finally, pulling back. “But I don’t want to worry my parents. Please don’t tell them … or my brother. I don’t want them to know.”
“Of course,” I agreed, hugging him tightly. “Don’t worry, nobody needs to know. I won’t tell anyone.”
I assumed we’d figure this out together, just as we tackled all our problems: as a team. But it quickly became apparent that he no longer had the strength to seek help himself. So I made phone call after phone call, attempting to navigate a disjointed, overburdened mental health system. His family doctor prescribed an antidepressant and referred him to a psychiatrist.
The waiting list to see the psychiatrist was eight months long.
In the meantime, he withdrew from his master’s program. Without a job, he spent his days sleeping. I scoured the internet and took out stacks of books on depression from the library. I gave him numbers of mental health hotlines and contacts for support groups, which lay untouched on the counter. I cooked big-batch dinners, hoping he would eat — if not today, the next day while I was at work. I cleaned the house frequently, trying desperately to shake off the cobwebs of sadness.
As his world became smaller, so did mine. I spent evenings gently cajoling him to come with me to the gym, walk with me to the park. Please, I begged, just circle the block. Just step outside. But as hard as I tried, I couldn’t make him do anything. He withdrew further and further, a cloudy film dimming his blue eyes.
My husband had always been my best friend, my primary confidant, my sounding board, and my greatest source of support. Now, it was up to me — and only me — to figure out how to make him better.
I felt utterly alone.
About six months later, he agreed to tell his family. Then we told my family and some friends. But the damage of keeping his secret was already done. He minimized the severity of his depression. He would muster every ounce of energy to appear upbeat through birthday gatherings and Christmas dinners; once home, utterly depleted, he’d crash for days.
The secrecy around his illness had a tremendous impact not just on him, but on me. Yet because it was his illness, and he didn’t want to talk about it, I felt as if I had no right to talk about it either. So outside of my family and a few close friends, I didn’t talk about it with anyone. I didn’t talk about my frustrations in trying to find him proper medical care. I didn’t talk about how helpless and hopeless I felt as I tried to lift his mood. And I definitely didn’t talk about that leaden, sickening feeling I had every day after work as I pulled open the front door of my apartment: I’d check every room one by one, not knowing what I would find.
It was two years before his depression even remotely began to lift. Eventually, I told my supervisor and a few colleagues at work when he was admitted to the hospital’s mood disorders clinic, and I needed to leave for his midmorning appointments. They were understanding, and I started to talk about my situation more freely. Over time, I started dropping it casually in conversation, as if having a depressed spouse was, well, normal.
In fact, it is: about one of five adults in the United States experiences mental illness in a given year.
As I opened up I was surprised by the number of people who empathized.
“That sounds like my entire childhood,” a friend said, telling me for the first time how she grew up under a cloak of confusion and silence with a mother who has bipolar disorder.
“My husband went through a major depression,” admitted an acquaintance at a cocktail party, and we proceeded to discuss the pros and cons of electroconvulsive therapy over a glass of Cab Shiraz. Somebody I worked with revealed that her last vacation wasn’t actually a holiday. She had returned to her hometown for her brother’s funeral, after his suicide.
I had known many of these people for years, yet I never knew how much mental illness affected their families. It made me sad and then angry. Why does talking about mental health in your family have to be such a secret? Why are we not sharing our experiences?
It’s the same reason my husband asked me to keep his secret all those years ago. He thought he should have been able to handle it.
I thought I should have been able to handle it.
Over a decade later, I am still trying to handle it. The experience has scarred me, and our marriage. The stigma and silence surrounding mental illness not only prevents individuals from getting the crucial help they need, it stops their partners, siblings, parents and children from receiving the essential support they need. It took me years to realize that regardless of whether or not my husband wants to share his story of mental illness, I need to share mine.
Today, my husband is no longer depressed. He is open about his history of mental illness and he has challenged the stigma himself. He recognizes the impact the silence had on each of us individually as well as together, and he supports me in speaking out.
If I could go back to that fall morning in our kitchen, I would tell my husband this: “I know what you’re going through feels unbearable. It breaks my heart. I so desperately want to make things better. But we can’t keep this between us. We need as much support as possible to get the help you need. You are not alone.”
And then, I wouldn’t have been so alone either.